Illustration by Haeri Chung

Blockchain: Tree of Potential

Also available in:  Chinese

Throughout 2019, The Point explores new models for operating in the art market. For this issue, we asked the co-founders of Snark.art to discuss blockchain’s relationship to the digital art market. 

The end of 2017 seems like a century ago. Bitcoin was trading over 20 times higher than its price at the end of 2016, and everyone was talking about a new paradigm for the world of tomorrow, one in which blockchain solves everything—from collecting garbage to tracking the source of beans in your coffee. The technology was getting so much attention that it was difficult to manage expectations; I remember all of us oscillating between skepticism and a sense of wonder. 

The following year the prices sank, the hype settled, and we finally started to get clear glimpses of the reality: blockchain does indeed have the potential to impact day-to-day life, but in order to solve the world’s complex problems, let alone some of the simpler ones, the technology needs to be faster, more robust and far more user-friendly. We are still years away, in my opinion, from mass adoption of the technology, but even in its current state we are excited about its potential in the art world. 

Before diving too deeply into our projects, we should take a step back and explain some terminology, in particular the distinction between the seemingly interchangeable terms “crypto” and “blockchain.” Blockchain is simply advanced ledger technology: it is a record of information or transactions maintained by a broad network of computers, one in which any alteration requires a consensus across the participants in this network. Crypto, meanwhile, is one of the uses for blockchain technology; it is a digital currency that exists on and is secured by a blockchain network. Blockchain is easier to grasp if you think about it as a tree where bitcoins or other crypto, among many other things, can grow. 

In early 2018, people started to realize that, in terms of
the art market, blockchain can offer transparency for ownership, provenance history and authentication. Among the first projects
to spark our interest was CryptoPunks, created by Matt Hall
and John Watkinson. The duo had identified a historic obstacle
in the online art market, in that anything digital can be easily copied and distributed, making its scarcity, and therefore its
value, difficult to maintain, especially compared to physical objects. Their solution was to ensure that ownership and provenance of the 10,000 CryptoPunks are recorded on the blockchain ledger, whose decentralized nature made forgery or duplication extremely difficult. 

CryptoPunks’ initial insight led us to wonder what else blockchain can do for art and artists, and about a year ago we started brainstorming ideas—everything from variations of communal ownership, to artworks that mutate as they change owners, and decentralized live performances organized on blockchain. We really felt that blockchain’s potential in the art world was extremely underutilized, like in the early days of the internet when people thought that email was just a way to save money on postage stamps. These ideas led to the beginning of our journey into the intersection of art and blockchain at Snark.art, which we founded in early 2018. 

While blockchain gained an initial foothold in the art world because of its digital registry technology, it can also enable different models of art ownership and interactivity via the use of “smart contracts.” In Snark.art’s work with the artist Eve Sussman, we “shattered” the final proof of her celebrated video artwork 89 Seconds at Alcazár (2004) into 2,304 fragments—each one 20×20 pixels, a tiny sliver of the whole—and sold the fragments on the blockchain to nearly 300 collectors worldwide. Thanks to the smart contract, each individual collector, even if they owned just a single fragment, could request access to the whole work for a day, via the blockchain. It’s a way of democratizing art collecting while also ensuring, for the artist, that scarcity is maintained. The artists, the collectors and the artworks empowered by these “smart contracts” all exist on the same level. Their interactions with each other become seamless. New forms of creativity and community can spring into existence. 

At Snark.art, we are currently working on a literary project that forces the participant into a choice between the economic value of the art object and access to its poetic expression. Another artist collaboration involves the creation of an audiovisual archive that will enable a community of collectors to co-create new musical compositions. Earlier this year we helped organize a live performance at an art fair in New York where blockchain ensured the anonymity of performers while connecting them to a set of instructions to carry out.

We want to help artists bring their ideas to life by creating a
market eager to participate in shared interactive experiences at accessible price points, with the goal of spreading their work around the world without diluting and devaluing it. Beyond artists,
Snark.art also partners with curators and nonprofit organizations on commissions, exhibitions, fundraisers and special events.
Snark.art collaborates with both established and emerging artists to unite these technologies with their practice, and to evolve blockchain past cryptocurrencies. The challenge before us is to ride out the ups and downs of cryptocurrency’s fitful early days and
to keep pushing the limits of blockchain’s potential.

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